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MANILA, Philippines – In 1999, the Philippines had a dilemma. A 3-year-old structure China built in Mischief Reef – supposedly to serve as a sanctuary for fisherfolk – was “obviously” of military relevance.
“Suddenly, there was a structure on Mischief Reef. In the beginning, [the Chinese] were explaining that these were structures for fishermen. But the structures grew, and it became obvious that it had military significance,” said former Senator Orly Mercado, who in 1999 served as the country’s defense chief.
It was the Navy who thought of grounding – some say it was a bright idea – the Philippines’ tank landing ship in disputed areas in the South China Sea to serve as the country’s outpost in the area.
To the surprise of the Chinese, the BRP Sierra Madre was ran aground in Ayungin Shoal, which is near Mischief Reef.
“Ang excuse ko pa don, aksidente… pero kaming mga pulitiko (My excuse was that it was an accident. But we politicians), we can speak with our mouths, both sides,” he added in jest.
The BRP Benguet followed in Scarborough Shoal, although that ship had to be removed following strong opposition from China. Over two decades later, Mercado looks back and thinks the Philippines should have grounded more ships. “Ngayon, naisip ko na dapat ginawa namin, apat agad eh, (Looking back, we should have sent four ships) suddenly… [but that’s] in hindsight,” he added.
Today, the BRP Sierra Madre, dilapidated and in real danger of crumbling after decades of exposure to the open sea, serves as the country’s outpost in Ayungin Shoal or the Second Thomas Shoal, claimed by several countries including the Philippines and China.
It’s become a flashpoint for tensions between the two countries – every few weeks or so, we hear news of confrontations and incidents between vessels of the two countries.
On October 22, a China Coast Guard ship hit a Philippine military-hired supply vessel, and a Chinese Maritime Militia ship bumped the Philippine Coast Guard’s BRP Cabra. The Cabra was escorting the Armed Forces of the Philippines-contracted Unaiza May 2 for a resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre. Some of the supplies are materials to patch up the rusty Sierra Madre.
China has said that the Philippines is to blame. But Manila points out that Beijing’s ships have long been carrying out “dangerous manuevers” against its vessels during these routine resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal. – Rappler.com